What is stress?

Stress is the feeling of being under too much mental or emotional pressure. Pressure turns into stress when you feel unable to cope. People have different ways of reacting to stress, so a situation that feels stressful to one person may be motivating to someone else.

Stress can affect how you feel, think, behave and how your body works. In fact, common signs of stress include sleeping problems, sweating, loss of appetite and difficulty concentrating.

You may feel anxious, irritable or low in self esteem, and you may have racing thoughts, worry constantly or go over things in your head. You may notice that you lose your temper more easily, drink more or act unreasonably.

You may also experience headaches, muscle tension or pain, or dizziness.

Stress causes a surge of hormones in your body. These stress hormones are released to enable you to deal with pressures or threats – the so-called "fight or flight" response. 

Once the pressure or threat has passed, your stress hormone levels will usually return to normal. However, if you're constantly under stress, these hormones will remain in your body, leading to the symptoms of stress.

How you might feel

  • irritable, aggressive, impatient or wound up
  • over-burdened
  • anxious, nervous or afraid
  • like your thoughts are racing and you can't switch off
  • unable to enjoy yourself                                                
  • uninterested in life
  • like you've lost your sense of humour
  • a sense of dread
  • worried about your health
  • neglected or lonely, depressed

How you might behave

  • finding it hard to make decisions
  • avoiding situations that are troubling you
  • snapping at people
  • biting your nails
  • picking at your skin
  • unable to concentrate
  • eating too much or too little
  • restless, like you can't sit still
  • feeling tearful or crying

How you might be physically affected

  • shallow breathing or hyperventilating 
  • you might have a panic attack
  • blurred eyesight or sore eyes
  • problems getting to sleep, staying asleep or having nightmares
  • tired all the time
  • grinding your teeth or clenching your jaw
  • headaches
  • chest pains
  • high blood pressure
  • indigestion or heartburn
  • constipation or diarrhoea
  • feeling sick, dizzy or fainting

What you can do

Indulge in Physical Activity

Stressful situations increase the level of stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol in your body.

These are the “fight or flight” hormones that evolution has hard-wired into our brains and which are designed to protect us from immediate bodily harm when we are under threat.  However, stress in the modern age is rarely remedied by a fight or flight response, and so physical exercise can be used as a surrogate to metabolize the excessive stress hormones and restore your body and mind to a calmer, more relaxed state.

When you feel stressed and tense, go for a brisk walk in fresh air.  Try to incorporate some physical activity into your daily routine on a regular basis, either before or after work, or at lunchtime.  Regular physical activity will also improve the quality of your sleep.

Get more sleep

A lack of sleep is a significant cause of stress. Unfortunately though, stress also interrupts our sleep as thoughts keep whirling through our heads, stopping us from relaxing enough to fall asleep.

Rather than relying on medication, your aim should be to maximise your relaxation before going to sleep.  Make sure that your bedroom is a tranquil oasis with no reminders of the things that cause you stress.  Avoid caffeine during the evening if you know that this leads to disturbed sleep. Stop doing any mentally demanding work several hours before going to bed so that you give your brain time to calm down and swich off your mobile phone and any other electronic devices. Try taking a warm bath or reading a calming, undemanding book for a few minutes to relax your body, tire your eyes and help you forget about the things that worry you.

You should also aim to go to bed at roughly the same time each day so that your mind and body get used to a predictable bedtime routine.

Try relaxation techniques

Each day try to relax with a stress reduction technique.  There are many tried and tested ways to reduce stress so try a few and see what works best for you.

For example, try self-hypnosis which is very easy and can be done anywhere. One very simple technique is to focus on a word or phrase that has a positive meaning to you. Words such as "calm" "love" and "peace" work well, or you could think of a self-affirming mantra such as “I deserve calm in my life” or “Grant me serenity”.  Focus on your chosen word or phrase; if you find your mind has wandered or you become aware of intrusive thoughts entering your mind, simply disregard them and return your focus to the chosen word or phrase. If you find yourself becoming tense again later, simply silently repeat your word or phrase.

Don't worry if you find it difficult to relax at first. Relaxation is a skill that needs to be learned and will improve with practice.

Talk to someone

Just talking to someone about how you feel can be helpful.

Talking can work by either distracting you from your stressful thoughts or releasing some of the built-up tension by discussing it.

Stress can cloud your judgement and prevent you from seeing things clearly. Talking things through with a friend,  or even a trained professional, can help you find solutions to your stress and put your problems into perspective.

Keep a stress diary

Keeping a stress diary for a few weeks is an effective stress management tool as it will help you become more aware of the situations which cause you to become stressed.

Note down the date, time and place of each stressful episode, and note what you were doing, who you were with, and how you felt both physically and emotionally.  Give each stressful episode a stress rating (on, say, a 1-10 scale) and use the diary to understand what triggers your stress and how effective you are in stressful situations.  This will enable you to avoid stressful situations and develop better coping mechanisms.

Take control

Stress can be triggered by a problem that may on the surface seem impossible to solve. Learning how to find solutions to your problems will help you feel more in control thereby lowering your level of stress.

One problem-solving technique involves writing down the problem and coming up with as many possible solutions as you can. Decide on the good and bad points of each one and select the best solution. Write down each step that you need to take as part of the solution: what will be done, how will it be done, when will it be done, who is involved and where will it take place.

Manage your time

At times, we all feel overburdened by our 'To Do' list and this is a common cause of stress.   Accept that you can not do everything at once and start to prioritise and diarise your tasks.

Make a list of all the things that you need to do and list them in order of genuine priority. Note what tasks you need to do personally and what you can ask others to do.  Record which tasks need to be done immediately, in the next week, in the next month, or when time allows.

By editing what might have started out as an overwhelming and unmanageable task list, you can break it down into a series of smaller, more manageable tasks spread out over a longer time frame, with some tasks removed from the list entirely through delegation.

Remember as well to create buffer times to deal with unexpected and emergency tasks, and to include time for your own relaxation and well-being.

Learn to say ‘No’

A common cause of stress is having too much to do and too little time in which to do it.  And yet in this situation, many people will still agree to take on additional responsibility.  Learning to say “No” to additional or unimportant requests will help to reduce your level of stress, and may also help you develop more self-confidence.

To learn to say “No”, you need to understand why you find it difficult.  Many people find it hard to say “No” because they want to help and are trying to be nice and to be liked.  For others, it is a fear of conflict, rejection or missed opportunities.  Remember that these barriers to saying “No” are all self-created.

You might feel reluctant to respond to a request with a straight “No”, at least at first.  Instead think of some pre-prepared phrases to let other people down more gently.  Practice saying phrases such as:

I am sorry but I can’t commit to this as I have other priorities at the moment.”                           
“Now is not a good time as I’m in the middle of something.  Why don’t you ask me again at….?”
“I’d love to do this, but …”

Avoid caffeine and reduce your intake of sugar

Avoid, or at least reduce your consumption of all drinks containing caffeine. Caffeine is a stimulant and so will increase your level of stress rather than reduce it.

Swap caffeinated drinks for water, herbal teas, or diluted natural fruit juices and aim to keep yourself hydrated as this will enable your body to cope better with stress. Alcohol and nicotine will increase your levels of stress. Also remember it is illegal to purchase alcohol & cigarettes whilst under the age of 18.

You should also aim to avoid or reduce your intake of refined sugars - they are contained in many manufactured foods (and even in savoury foods such as salad dressings and bread) and can cause energy crashes which may lead you to feel tired and irritable. In general, try to eat a healthy, well-balanced and nutritious diet.

Rest if you are ill

If you are feeling unwell, do not feel that you have to carry on regardless. A short spell of rest will enable the body to recover faster.

Exam stress

What is it?

Exam stress is normal and very common. People may experience it because:

  • It is often necessary to learn and recall a large amount of information for an exam
  • Exams always have an element of uncertainty about them
  • You may need a particular exam result to gain entry into another course or career path

How you might feel?

Some people feel stress more than others, regardless of how confident they are about the topic they are studying.

Symptoms of exam stress include:

  • losing touch with friends and the activities you enjoy
  • feeling extra cranky and low
  • sleeping poorly and struggling to get out of bed
  • difficulty getting motivated to start work
  • having clammy hands or feeling butterflies in your stomach
  • having a racing heart beat or feeling sick
  • feeling confused or having your mind going blank during the tests

These symptoms can interfere with how much you enjoy life, especially around exam times.

What you can do

If you're experiencing exam stress, firstly, it's important to try to remind yourself that this is only a small part of your life and won't last forever (even though it might not feel like it at the time!).

Below, we've put together a list of study, practical and relaxation ideas that young people have told us has helped them to manage exam stress. We've also included some tips on how to deal with stress on exam day!

Study ideas

It's never too late to set up good study and revision habits.

  • Have an uncluttered space to work with ready access to any materials you need
  • Find out exactly what the test involves, are there past test papers you can look at to help you understand what to expect?
  • Ask your teacher if you are unsure of what to expect or what will be tested
  • Learn to make ‘mind maps’ and use them to collect ideas and summarise thoughts, use bright colours to help remember important links
  • Make a clear plan of what you want to cover in each study period. Break it down into small tasks and work on one task at a time
  • Take regular short breaks of about 5 minutes to have a drink or something to eat
  • Ask for help sometimes. It may be useful to have someone hear you summarise points or to practise an oral presentation

Practical ideas to help with study

  • Stick to a routine of going to bed at a reasonable time, eating regularly and still making time to have fun and exercise.
  • Cut back on coffee or any other stimulants you may use as these can increase your agitation; drink lots of water instead.
  • When you eat, relax and allow yourself time rather than carrying on with work.
  • Fresh fruit, vegetables, cereals, grains, nuts and protein are all good for the brain and blood sugar levels. Eat as you become really hungry because it keeps blood sugar and hydration levels steady. Avoid junk food if possible because it will bring a sudden sugar high and then fall away quickly leaving you feeling depleted.
  • Give yourself mini rewards once you achieve your study goals, such as watching an episode of your favorite Television show or going for a run.

Relaxation ideas to help with study

  • Go out for a walk or run or do some other exercise that you enjoy.
  • Put on some gentle music, lie down, close your eyes and breathe deeply while visualising a calming scene such as a deserted beach.
  • Give yourself enough time to relax before you go to sleep. Reading a book or chatting to a friend for a while may help you unwind.
  • Visualise success as this can really help with self-confidence.

Ideas for exam day

  • Work out and organise what you need to take with you into your exam the night before.
  • If you feel yourself getting anxious just before your exam then spend some time focusing on your breathing. Practise beforehand (it could be as you lie down in bed) so that you learn how to slow down your breathing. Breathe in to a count of three and then breathe out to a count of three. Repeat this steadily for a few minutes.
  • On exam day, keep away from other people who may be feeling anxious or who may say unhelpful comments that make you feel more anxious.
  • When you first sit down to do your exam, take time to slow your breathing and relax.
  • Read through the exam paper carefully.  Underline key words and instructions.  Work out how long you have for each question or section.
  • Watch out for the wording of questions - make sure that you answer what is being asked.
  • Work on the questions that you find easiest first.
  • Aim to have time to re-read answers through and make any changes that are necessary.

Remember when you finish your exam - take time out to relax a bit before you start preparing for the next exam - go for a run or have a chat with a friend!

Useful websites and organisations

Coping with stress factsheet

Video guide to stress & emotional management

Further resources can also be found on the Health and Wellbeing page of our website